First up: full disclosure. I have written a weekly column for the Sunday Times for more than 15 years as a free-lancer on contract. I regard my editors there as among the best I have ever had; they have never tried to get me to write something I had any conflict with; and they have stuck by my own political evolution and conflicts over that period. I regard them as exemplary people – as are many who work under the Murdoch flag.
No charges of phone hacking have been made against the Sunday Times, to my relief. The reason for my own opposition to such practices – apparently not confined to the now defunct and affectionately titled News of the Screws – is rather simple. It’s cheating. Good reporting is hard work, which is why I have largely left it to those expert at its techniques. It requires certain acceptable levels of deceit (point taken, Ms Malcolm), guile, persistence, rudeness, cunning and the delicate art of interrogation. Investigative stories can take months to mature and, like new drug trials, can also disappear in a puff of smoke at the end. Sources can be elusive and untrustworthy and necessary. It’s one of the toughest tributaries of hackery and only occasionally the most fruitful.
But when you simply hack people’s phones to get a story, you have abandoned journalism. You have entered criminality. There is no actual journalistic skill required – just technical communications know-how and stenography. And the notion that the bulk of this is somehow in the public interest is preposterous. No conceivable public interest was served by knowing that Prince Charles once said he wanted to be Camilla’s tampon – and the exposure of such intimate details from phone hacking is simply criminal behavior designed to humiliate those more successful or famous than others. (Envy remains, I discover, the great British sin). I can’t express this better than the British comedian Steve Coogan in a recent appearance on Newsnight:
And it’s worth noting that the Great British Public were not exactly up in arms about Prince Charles’s fate – or that of any others – until the minute they realized that phone hacking might actually happen to them. It was only when members of the general public were targeted by this criminality that the outcry broke through the white noise. Before then, the News of the World was selling 2.7 million copies on Sunday out of a population of 70 million, and Rebekah Brooks was threatening many who dared question it with personal destruction as well. Imagine a US paper selling the equivalent – 11 million copies on a Sunday – and you see the scale of the sleaze, and the power. They were all in on it. And very few people in Britain can really be shocked at what we now know.
But shocked they pretend to be; as genuinely shocked as when they find out a famous footballer screws around on his wife. It really is a strange culture: completely unshockable and yet prepared to adopt utterly false shock to provide a patina of morality for what is essentially prurience and titillation. I’m sorry but the Great British Public is as complicit in all this as any member of their political/journalistic elite.